The art of world travel has changed. This is good.
World travel has become too easy, and this is very, very good.
The world of travel has changed. You can now do things easier, faster, and better from a few moments sitting in front of a computer or even from your phone while slurping some noodles in some out of the way slop house. In a matter of 30 minutes I can fully book a trip to another country. I can buy a plane ticket, figure out overland transport, book my beds, and download maps and whatever notes I need. 30 minutes. I’m not joking.
I just did it. I arranged my trip to the Philippines in less time than it takes for a video to upload to Youtube. I went to my friend Dave’s guide to the Philippines, selected a few places from his list, booked one hostel online, called another and made a reservation, and took down the address of a third to just show up to (small town). I found out where I could get the buses that go between the cities, took screenshots of maps, arranged transport from the airport, did about everything. Now I can go there and do only what I want to do: ask a lot of questions, enjoy the place.
I suppose at this point I have “old school travel creds.” This doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that I started traveling a long time ago, in 1999. At that time you just didn’t use the internet for many of the basics of travel — things like booking rooms. It was unreliable, the hotels didn’t always get the system, and most of the good, cheap hotels had no online presence anyway. I can even remember calling airlines over the phone and booking tickets with a debit card. It was a different era then — one I’m glad is gone.
There are some things in life to be nostalgic about, but walking through cities praying that you can find a hotel you can afford and they will have a vacancy is not one of them. I realized that times had changed in 2009 in Mexico City. Most of the cheap rooms and hostels were fully booked up with online reservations, and my wife, baby daughter, and I ended up trudging through the streets for hours, going from one part of the city to another, trying to find a place we could afford. By the end my wife was crying and screaming at me about how she just wanted to go home. It became apparent that my travel methods had long past their date of expiry — they were no longer old school, just old. I had to adapt.
Things are better now.
Around a year and a half ago I entered Shanghai at the beginning of the Spring Festival travel season. This is something you do not want to do. Almost all of the rooms in the city were booked, even trying to book online I found that my choices were severely limited. I found a hotel for an alright price on the outskirts of the city and made a reservation. Fair enough. When I arrived I found it to be a sub-shithole. For one of the few times ever in 15 years of world travel, I found a hotel that was too bad to stay in (furry mold was growing all over the walls of every room). I had to leave.
I walked down the street looking for an alternative. Every hotel I stopped into was booked up. But I didn’t fret or get frustrated, I just I stopped off at a noodle restaurant, ordered a bowl, and took out my mobile. In a matter of five minutes I had another room booked, my bed for the night secured. In the old days this would not have been possible. I would have wandered aimlessly through the streets of Shanghai for hours and hours loathing my depravity.
Some travelers whine that the convenience of the internet takes the “spontaneity” out of travel. I would have to assume that they weren’t around in the old days, and have no idea how things used to be. Finding hotels, booking tickets, and collecting maps is part of the work of travel. This has never been any fun. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Yeah, Baguio was really cool, I had such a good time walking around for two hours trying to find a hotel I could afford” or “Shanghai was amazing, I showed up just in time to discover that all the hotels in the city center were fully booked so I had to spend 5X the amount of money on a scuzzy roach pit!” or “Bangkok was the bomb, I went across the city to get a bus just to find out that I needed to go to the bus station on the other side! How awesome!” The work of travel has always sucked.
There is never any romance in things that suck.
I want to mitigate the rote tasks of travel as much as possible. I want to have my logistics sorted pre-arrival, so when I get somewhere I can do the things that I want to do: meet people, look at things, have odd encounters, chase intrigues, drink beer . . .
Next post: The Road Ahead: Wade to the Philippines